Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill sings the praises of Chris Brunt
Chris Brunt used to be singled out for criticism amid Northern Ireland's struggles, but Michael O'Neill sees him as a key figure behind their revival.
The 31-year-old returned from a knee injury to earn his 55th cap in a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan on Friday as O'Neill's team extended their unbeaten run in Belfast into double figures to move second in their World Cup qualifying campaign.
It is three years since their last defeat at Windsor Park when Brunt was dismissed in a 4-2 loss to Portugal at a time when fans wondered why their Premier League winger was unable to replicate his club form across the water.
A shift to left-back saw an improvement and he was inspirational against the Azeris, providing the assist for Gareth McAuley before being credited with the fourth goal himself, even if captain Steven Davis may have diverted his shot into the net.
Regardless, nobody was querying Brunt's appetite for the cause this time. Having worked his way back from an eight-month injury lay-off, he then split his head open early on but carried on, bandaged up, as O'Neill's side won in style.
"He came away with the man of the match award and you saw the reaction he got from the crowd to him being back," O'Neill said.
"At times maybe Chris has been unfairly criticised for playing for Northern Ireland. But certainly in the last couple of years he has been excellent when we have played him in that position at left-back and I can't remember a bad game he has had for us.
"I remember coming here when I wasn't the manager and I thought it was sometimes unfair when people expect an awful lot of the lads who have the highest exposure and they play in the Premier League.
"Sometimes maybe the Northern Ireland team was struggling as a whole and certain players were singled out.
"But we would have been a far stronger team in France (at Euro 2016) had Chris been fit, there is no doubt about that. We would have been a much bigger threat in France had Chris been fit as well.
"He has been captain of his club and he is one of those players who is easy to manage."
Brunt will likely be alongside O'Neill in the dugout on Tuesday for a friendly with Croatia where those on the fringes of the team will be selected.
The next competitive fixture is not until March, when Norway visit Belfast, as they did four years ago for O'Neill's first friendly in charge.
The stakes will be higher this time around and though O'Neill will bid his group adieu for four months after next week, he is confident that their mentality is such they can maintain their form.
"When they come in for the Norway game the game will take care of itself because they will know the significance of what another win will do for us," he added.
"We have a really good team spirit, it's high. The team has put itself in a good position after four games and we will look forward to March."